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The origin of the ancient Olympic Games is lost in history, but some say that it began as a commemoration of the god Zeus' defeating Cronusin a wrestling match—the prize being possession of Earth. Other legends state that Heracles, son of Zeus and the mortal woman Alcmene, founded the Games. Regardless of the event that inspired the Games, the first recorded mention of the Olympics was in 776 BCE. The Olympic Games would continue to be held in Olympia in the western Peloponnese until 393 ACE.
While nominally a religious festival honoring the gods, a major part was the competition between young men who wanted to show off their physical fitness, strength, speed, and cunning. For five days, spectators would watch athletes compete in running, jumping, and throwing events plus boxing, wrestling, pankration, and chariot racing. At its height in the second century ACE, 40,000 spectators would pack the stadium while many more lingered outside enjoying the festivities.
In 393 ACE, Emperor Theodosius I, a Christian, banned all pagan festivals, ending the Olympic tradition after nearly 12 centuries.
10 Facts About the Ancient Games
- Wrestlers and pankration (a mixed martial art that combined boxing and wrestling) competitors fought covered in oil.
- A false start in track was grounds for corporal punishment (floggings).
- There were only two rules in pankration—no biting and no gouging.
- There were no points, no time limits, and no weight classifications in boxing.
- Athletes in combat sports had to indicate their surrender by raising their index fingers— some died before they could do this.
- Warring Greek states would call a truce leading up to and during the Games so travelers could safely attend.
- All free Greek males were allowed to take part, from farmhands to royal heirs, although the majority of Olympians were soldiers.
- While there is some evidence that women participated in the early Games, by the fifth century BCE, women were barred from competition and the Games as a whole.
- Instead of a bronze, silver, or gold medal, winners had a wreath of olive leaves placed on their heads. The wreaths were associated with Heracles.
- The English word ‘stadium’ comes from the Greek word stade which was a foot race of about 190 meters that was part of the Games.